Is it Moet or Moët: Champagne Socialism
It's time to seize the means of production....the means of champagne production that is.
There is a term used by both people on the left and right as an insult. It's a term that has as much variety as there are ways to pronounce Moet. That term is champagne socialist. The point of this article is going to be discussing this term. Where did it come from, why it gets used, when is it actually applicable, and what's the point of using it.
Although the case can be made that the idea represented by the champagne socialist is a global phenomenon, the origin of the word itself traces to the UK . In the UK,
the term describes someone who calls themselves a socialist but is also relatively wealthy or upper class. It should be obvious then that this is a term intended as a pejorative. Interestingly, this is something that both people on the left and the right will sling at each other although probably for different reasons.
The implication is obvious: "you're not a real socialist, because you drink champagne".
From the right, it's thrown at people who advocate for socialism or socialist policies whilst at the same time living upscale lifestyles that seem to sneer on the plight of the working classes.
From the left, it's thrown at people who don't do enough to advocate for practical socialism. They're drinking champagne and paying lip service to socialism, but won't get on a picket line or protest. As an insult to the left, I think it works. Anyone that advocates for socialism, but isn't willing to actually do anything for it beyond lip service, is doing bad praxis. There probably are better terms that could be used but it's a very evocative one.
I am however, bias open, more interested in the argument as it is used in the context of right wing people. You see, when thrown from the perspective of a person on the right, a champagne socialist carries the implication of a central hypocrisy: someone drinking champagne can't be a socialist. More concretely, someone who has comfort or luxury cannot be a socialist. Even more upfront in the mind's of a right wing person "luxury and comfort is inherently anathema to socialism". You can rest assured that most of the time, the term carries the implication of that hot take.
So why would this be the case? Well the obvious one is that people who want to discredit anyone advocating for socialism by apparently demonstrating a hypocrisy.
"You're advocating for socialism when you're also living the luxurious life that only capitalism can provide. You're such a hypocrite."
I'd like to attack this argument in a number of ways:
1) Socialism is about attacking the means of production. Socialism thinking as a whole does not advocate against or for material goods; it is about how those goods are produced and who derives the benefits of their production. Capitalism ascribes social status to some goods over others but that is immaterial to anyone critiquing capitalism
2) There is no ethical consumption under capitalism. All goods consumed under a capitalist mode of production aren't ethical to consume. So there is no way to consume any of good, from champagne to soup, in a way that is ethical for a socialist. So this means in practice, many socialists will try to minimise their consumption to their means but it can mean that socialists can buy and get things that are considered luxuries.
There is one takeaway from this that you must be wary of. Oftentimes the people calling other people champagne socialists have it in their mind that people who aren't poor, cannot criticise the social system. Let me say that again. People who most often use the phrase champagne socialist, believe only the poor can offer critiques of the system. In their mind, the well off, have no reason to criticise the system. Basically, you have to be poor to criticise capitalism because no rich (or well off) person would.
This is a ridiculous line of reasoning. Firstly, the historical precedent. One of the most prominent socialists was Karl Marx. Was Karl Marx a factory worker or a labourer? No. Marx was a journalist and a writer. By the standards of the day, Marx was fairly well off and yet, he set out to establish the theory for communism. One of the reasons why he could do this is because he was fairly comfortable.
You see, you can't do write a massive critique of capitalism if you work in a factory for 15 hours a day and barely earn enough money to live. You need a certain level of economic freedom to be able to do something like that. Paradoxically, you need a certain level of wealth in order to be able to formulate a critique of wealth. And it remains true that many of the people who are socialists are not extremely poor. Many of them might actually be middle class or even upper class.
Even in Marx's own writing, we see that socialism cannot be created except as a result of capitalism. The one must follow from the other because capitalism develops the necessary conditions under which socialism can be born (such as the factory as the means of production). So it's quite likely that people with time and money on their hands might be for advocating the cause of socialism because they have the time and money to learn about it.
Does this mean that socialism cannot be spread and co-opted by the poor? Of course not; the point of socialism is to organise society to remove the capitalist class and become classless. Under capitalism, the poor generally do not have the means to do this education and so from this idea, stems the concept of the vanguard party. And so on.
There's one last thing I want to talk about. Namely, names are funny. There are a lot of people who might call themselves socialists, but upon further inspection, don't actually believe in anything that is really all that socialist. They have the aesthetic understanding of socialism like the hammer and sickle and sweet Lenin custom t-shirt, but they don't have the critiques of the capitalist system or support changes or revolutions against it.
These people will affect the air of supporting any kind of socialism, but when push comes to shove, they'll fold. They're not trying to use their privilege as a means to spread socialism, in the way that someone with time and money can, but rather use something like socialism to plaster over their privilege as a means of avoiding scrutiny.
If anyone deserves the title of champagne socialist, it's these people. Not the socialists who can occasionally afford to buy some sparkling alcohol.
 Rockey, James C.. “Who is left-wing, and who just thinks they are?” (2009).
Image Credit: Photo by Anthony Delanoix on Unsplash